Thursday, 29 April 2010

"I Had Air Coming Out Of My Eyes" (Boat Dive)

Is not a sentence, thankfully, that one hears very often.

Let me backtrack a little.

I did my first boat dive in the UK last Sunday, off Eyemouth, just over the Scottish Border. It was the first club boat dive in the UK for the season*. Our Chief Instructor introduced the first dive with words along the lines of "this is the first boat dive of the season, let's be careful whilst everyone gets used to doing this again and be prepared for things to go wrong".

He was right.

It's fair to say that I'm at that stage of experience (22 dives as of last Sunday) where, despite my shiny new card saying "Advanced Open Water", I still begin each dive wondering what I will manage to do wrong this time. I'm not a particularly awful diver (I like to think), but diving is complex enough that until everything becomes second nature, there's usually so many things going on at once that I manage to get one of them wrong. Fortunately, my training was good enough that it's usually the smaller things like "forget to put fins on before scuba unit**" on the boat rather than the really important stuff like "check all the connections are in place, the air valve is turned on and the jacket is inflated BEFORE going in the water".

It's easier to put your fins on first on a boat, since it's more difficult to bend down and tighten them with the scuba unit on your back. On a shore dive, the fins only go on once you're about to go in the water, since it's nearly impossible to walk over rocks wearing fins. One of many things I learned last Sunday.

I really enjoyed the dives, but the same cannot be said of us all. Our tally of mishaps included:

a) A diver in the first group surfacing a minute or so after the group had started to descend with the memorable words that form the title of this post, preceded by "I can't equalise". Being unable to equalise your ears and sinuses*** is a situation all divers dread, as it makes diving impossible and means you've had a wasted trip. It's usually caused, as it was here, by having recently had a cold and having blocked sinuses, making it impossible to push air up the sinuses and equalise the pressure on the inside of the ear drum. He had tried repeatedly to do this, apparently so hard that the air had leaked out of his eyes via the tear ducts. I had not previously known this was possible.

b) One diver with a flooded mask and regulator knocked out of her mouth at the same time. An awful situation to be in, since you lose your ability to breathe and to see at the same time. We do, however, train for this; regulator recovery and mask clearing are among the first skills every diver learns before you are passed fit to dive. Doing them in training is very different to doing them unexpectedly in a real situation, and I was most impressed by how calmly she told us this afterwards. (Didn't want to go back in again afterwards though - I'm not sure I would have wanted to either.)

c) One diver with severe seasickness. Apparently the cure for this on a dive boat is to have them jump back in the sea and swim about - it's not too cold to do this if you're wearing a full 7mm semidry suit with hood, boots and gloves. I didn't know this, either, but unfortunately it failed to work. If you try this, you have to avoid it coinciding with another diver deciding to use the "other head". The "head" on a boat is the toilet to landlubbers, and the "other head" is "off the back of the boat", if you happen to be male. Getting an eyeful of pee, or even just an eyeful of peeing diver, isn't going to do anything for the sickness.

d) Two divers deciding after the first dive that one was enough for the day. It was a very cold first dive, and any diver can decide to stop diving for any reason - not feeling happy on the dive is all the reason you need.

e) One diver with a snapped fin. He must have caught it stepping off the back of the boat into the sea. It split nearly in half, hanging on by the barest thread. I was swimming behind him on the dive, and spent at least ten minutes thinking "is it going to snap, will we be towing him back to the boat, is it going to snap now, will we be towing him..." etc.

Other than that, it was a good trip - for me, anyway. I hadn't done a boat dive in the UK, and part of the reason for my wanting my shiny new Advanced Open Water card was to be allowed on the boat - the skipper of the boat we were diving from insists that all divers must be AOW to be allowed on. One difference between it and the Maldives was that this boat had a boat lift, essentially a small platform that descends from the back of the boat far enough into the sea for a diver in the water to stand on. The platform then rises so that you don't have to climb back onto the boat - it lifts you up. Neat! And very practical. I was fine climbing out of the boat in the Maldives, but trying to do so in a full 7mm semidry suit with 8 kilos of weight round your waist at the end of a dive would be a different kettle of fish.

I got two dives in. I have to say that the first one wasn't awful, but I wouldn't quite class it as fun. I was a bit nervous on the descent, mainly because as I descended further I realised my weight belt was a bit too loose - I must have failed to cinch it tight enough on the boat. This was not a good situation. Aside from making it harder to swim, having your weight belt come off is risky. Losing 8 kilos of weight is a sudden enough buoyancy change that you would risk an unplanned buoyant ascent, which can give you DCI****.

I considered trying to tighten the belt, and decided to leave well alone, reasoning that although the belt wasn't tight enough, the buckle itself was firmly fastened, and the belt wasn't loose enough to slip over my hips when I stood up on the boat or when I was swimming. I weighed up "slightly loose weight belt which is staying on" versus "possibility of losing it altogether if I undo the fastening" and decided to leave well alone.

Probably I should have gone for the third option, "ask buddy for help". That I didn't is no reflection on him, but rather a reflection on my own feeling that I wouldn't have been able to signal clearly enough what I wanted him to do, and also signal the other divers in the group to slow down and stay with us. I made it to the end of the dive with the weight belt firmly in place, and learned a valuable lesson about the importance of donning the belt properly. Second dive = no problems with belt!

As a consequence of this and of the fact that during the descent I couldn't seem to find the inflator hose for my buoyancy jacket (it sits on my left shoulder, and I'd probably have been able to find it easily if I hadn't been so distracted), I was sucking air pretty fast. When we got down there, I remember thinking "I am breathing WAY too fast, calm down, calm down, breathe slow". I calmed down, breathed slow, and followed everyone else along a most impressive reef dive. Not much fish life, but many anemones and sea urchins, very striking to look at. We swam through fields of kelp and hung on to it to keep ourselves stable during a safety stop***** (another trick I learned last Sunday).

Most of that first dive was uneventful, but cold. It was 15m deep, which is plenty deep enough in British waters in April without a drysuit. I am seriously beginning to hear the call of the drysuit. I hate to be cold more than anything else, and whilst on a dive I can usually put my feelings about being cold "in a box" and focus on something else, after about half an hour the dive ceases being fun. Unfortunately, the dry suit plus the undergarments plus the training to use it safely costs a pretty penny or two, so I'll be diving wet for a while. Not that the manufacturers of my semidry suit fell down on the job; when I peeled it off for a quick pee, my body was sufficiently warm that water vapour was rising off me. It's just that everyone's tolerance for cold differs. Ah well, one of these days...

I settled myself inside the boat, bundled myself in a jacket, drank some coffee and ate a chocolate mini roll. Ah, the joy of diving; the perfect excuse to eat whatever you like... Shortly afterwards I headed back out again to get some fresh air. Sitting inside the cabin was like being in a small box being violently shaken by a giant, and I was not feeling so great. Some fresh air, and I was fine.

As ever, I had to nerve myself a bit to go back in for the second dive - the little voice in my head was going "You want to go BACK in there where it's all cold?" - but I had paid my money, and wanted to dive.

I'll admit, there was a stupid pride thing going on too. I was going to be the only female diving with the second group, and, if I'm really honest, part of me wanted to show that I can do two dives, just like the men. Which is a stupid reason to dive, I know. Nobody on that boat is sexist, or would seriously question that... it's all in my head, I know. But, more importantly, I really, really, wanted to dive.

The second dive was shallower (second dives always are) and over "the boilers". These are bits of a wrecked ship, which have been down there so long they don't resemble a ship, but you can see which bit used to be the boiler. I got back in there, and the second dive went much better. No problems with weight belt, no problems with buoyancy hose, ears equalised just fine, buoyancy control was nice and smooth. Only thing I got wrong was ascending a little too fast at the end (my computer beeped at me), but I don't seem to have suffered any damage as a result.

It was a good dive, nice visibility, lots of interesting wreckage to look at and I think I saw a fish. Most of all, there was the joy of being underwater in a pack of divers. When diving goes well, when your ears are clear and you hover weightless in the water with neutral buoyancy, powerful fins propelling you easily through the water, swimming in a team with your fellow divers... there really is no feeling like it. I'm trying to describe it, but my words really aren't doing it justice.

It was a good day. Accidents, seasickness and air coming out of tear ducts notwithstanding.

* The UK diving season runs roughly in line with British Summer Time i.e. around April-October. It's not to do with the clocks going back or forwards, just that this is roughly when the water is warm enough and the weather good enough to make diving feasible for the majority of recreational divers. It's certainly possible to dive in colder conditions, but this generally requires more gear and a generally higher level of complexity. For the majority of recreational divers wanting to dive in the UK, April-October is the main "dive season".

** scuba unit: the inflatable buoyant jacket, air tank ("bottle") and regulators to breathe through. The bottle is strapped onto the jacket, the regulator's valve screws on the top of the bottle, the jacket's air hose is connected to the bottle with the low-pressure inflator connection, and you put the whole thing on like a sleeveless jacket.

*** equalising your ears; as a diver descends, the increased water pressure puts the ear drum under strain due to the lower pressure on the other side of the ear drum, just like when you descend in an aeroplane whilst flying. The solution is the same, too; you pinch your nose, then blow against it gently to push more air into the sinuses and air passages within the ear, thus equalising the pressure on both sides of the ear drum and reliving any discomfort. Simple to do, but absolutely vital. If not done in time, you can damage your ears badly.

**** DCI = Decompression Illness. Term referring to someone showing symptoms that could be caused by either the bends, a lung overexpansion injury (where you have come up too fast and the air in your lungs has expanded at a rate that has damaged them - ascending at a safe rate avoids this) or, if you're really unlucky, both. Decompression sickness (DCS) refers specifically to the bends.

***** Three-minute stop at five metres' depth. Recreational divers plan their dives to avoid having to do decompression stops, for reasons I'll rabbit on about in a later post. We do, however, do safety stops, which are not mandatory (unless you've been diving deeper than about 30 metres - even then, you still theoretically shouldn't need them, but you would do them to avoid risking the bends), but considered advisable to minimise any risk of getting the bends. Especially prudent on a cold dive where divers work harder and consequentially breathe a larger volume of air, thus loading more dissolved nitrogen into your body tissues.

1 comment:

  1. I sympathise with the seasick divers. Other remedies that appear to work are:
    (i) getting yourself in a position on the boat, preferably outside, where you can focus on a fixed land-based point on the horizon - or another boat if it is far enough away and moving slowly enough to count as 'fixed';
    (ii) if the boat you are on is moving, taking the helm;
    (iii) eating ginger: this seems to have an effect in less severe seas;
    (iv) using a clever pulse-based device on your wrist, available at enormous cost from chandlers. I am not sure if the effect is physiological or psychological (the latter based on the amount of financial worries that buying one of these devices causes leaving no time for feeling sea-sick). Either way, mine lets me go below to do chartwork even in quite heavy seas.